16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
I don’t know if you guys know Screwtape letters by C. S. Lewis. The book is structured as correspondence between two demons. Senior demon Screwtape is the uncle and his nephew Wormwood is the junior demon. Wormwood is still a rookie demon so he asks for tips about tempting humans. So Screwtape writes back to Wormwood and that’s basically the whole book. In one of the letters Screwtape recounts a “close call” of possibly losing his patients to his Enemy (Please keep in mind that since it is a demon writing, Enemy refers to God and Father refers to Satan and patient refers to human beings):
Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (oh, that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, “Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning,” the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,” he was already halfway to the door.
Last week, I preached about the benefits of going on fasting and one of the benefits was precisely the breaking of the power of the ordinary. The day to day mundane tasks that we carry out thoughtlessly can and DO, in fact, hold us slave to them – causing us to be dull, insensitive and even blinded to the fact that God the creator and redeemer sustains us moment by moment. Having created us from “ex nihilo” (means out of nothing), God needs to continually sustain us otherwise we cease to exist. Then just by the fact that we are able to breathe and live and eat for joy we ought to be thankful to God.
Then Fasting also serves as a means through which we are reminded and therefore become grateful to God’s day to day, ordinary provisions.
Fasting, as you have heard last week, has many benefits for Christians but it is not without its abuse and risk. As I stated last week, fasting without God in mind, can anger God. So then what do we need to watch out for, what do we need to do? We get the hint from our Lord Jesus Christ.
1: In the first place, we can figure out wrong pharisaic fasting practice during Jesus’ days from today’s passage. Wrong fasting consisted of:
- Disfigurement of themselves during fasting
- Foregoing washing their faces and anointing their heads with oil
Jesus says that only hypocrites do these in order to show others that they are fasting. Let me provide some details so you can understand what’s happening here. Pharisees were the religious leaders of Israel at the time and many of them fasted twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays – because they teach that Moses went up to receive the laws on a Thursday and came down on Monday).
Under normal circumstances, Jewish people groomed themselves before appearing in the public as any normal cultured people would. They will trim their beards, change their clothes and wash their faces. Today’s equivalent of the act of pouring oil over their heads is washing their hair with shampoo. Back in those days the oils were used to bath (it helps to get rid of dirt off the skin) as well as relieving dry scalp on your head. So when one is not doing any of these, then they will appear very distressed as if they are under stress or they are mal-nutritioned for number of days as would be the case if they were fasting for many days.
Now Jesus’ problem with all of these is this: when they want to appear as if they are fasting and when they want to appear distressed then their primary concern is most likely their social statuses and not God. Social status now as well as back then represents power. It is no wonder that people crave after it. So in short, many Pharisees were fasting all for wrong reasons. Last week I said that fasting without God in mind only angers God and we saw that from the words of Prophet Zechariah. When people are going on fasting because they want to show others that they are fasting and therefore seen as religiously advanced then they have very little room for God. In fact, they have no room for God. It is either you fill your heart with yourself or with God – one or the other. Neither of them wants to share your heart therefore they don’t. When the motivation for fasting is not for humbling or dedicating or disciplining yourself before God then you are in danger of just showing off.
Another danger of fasting for the sake of showing others is that it becomes an occasion on which you judge others and in turn you may risk losing your friends. When someone wants to appear athletic, most likely they are not athletic. If they were genuinely athletic then they wouldn’t have the need or the desire to “appear” athletic since they will naturally appear as such. Athletic is what they are naturally! So when someone wants to appear religious through the exercise of fasting, they are most likely NOT concerned about God all that much but with their empty hearts they judge others. Interestingly Jesus tells a parable involving two individuals and one mentions fasting:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)
Did you notice that the Pharisee said “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”? When one’s heart is empty of God and goes onto fasting in order to appear religious, this is what end up happening. You end up thanking a god called “yourself” for not being like others who don’t fast. With that judgmental heart, how could one keep all his friends? Not only you have angry God, you also have angry friends when fasting is practiced just to show off and you judge others because of that.
2: Secondly, if fasting becomes an end in itself, it is useless and counter-productive. If you are fasting to lose weight then call it what it is and just get on a diet. Don’t accompany fasting with any other purpose. Worship is an end in itself in that we express our adoration for God for the sake of doing it. Not in order to get something out of him or earn favours from him but just to love Him, period.
In contrast, fasting is NOT an end in itself in that fasting alone is useless. It must be accompanied by prayer, which is to say there has to be specific purpose in your fasting. Either God revealed your addiction or spiritual stronghold that you need to get rid of it in your life or at least be very disciplined about it then sure it is a good occasion to get on fasting and pray over it. But never think that simply skipping meals for a day or two will get you what you want without prayer and without much heart for God.
3: The season of Lent is already under way and some of us have begun our limited fasting. We still have entire March to go and I still like to invite you to at least limited form of fasting only if you are convinced that you are in a spiritual slumber and have identified areas where you are being stifled. Some of you are losing so many hours on youtube/facebook/League of Legend or any other form of online gaming. But at the same time, I want to warn you that do this only if you want to mature spiritually or if you have that desire to please God, so if your heart is itching away at you, by all means get on that fasting, free yourself so that you can pray before God. This is the spiritual act that God is pleased with.